Black, White, and Shades of Grey: Morality in Fantasy Literature

Who wouldn’t want to hear their favorite authors speak together on the same stage?

Recently, I was inspired by staff at Eventbrite about putting together a dream panel of authors I’d like to see at a conference.  Eventbrite is an organization that helps people create and share events that bring communities together.  For more information about their conference management tool, check out their website.

I love attending conferences, but have sadly never been to one that is book-related.  (That is likely to change now that I’m working as a librarian.)  Still, I assume that most events follow similar structures and that there is a great deal of freedom in what goes on in a panel.  That being said, I spent some time brainstorming what group I should bring together.  There are so many genres that I love and so many topics that would be interesting to explore.  I ended up settling on…

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England Bound

Today is the day.  I’m still a mixed bag of emotions, but am ready for what lies ahead.

On the threshold of a journey, I can’t help but think of the quote that inspired the title of this blog:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” J.R.R. Tolkien

This quote goes with me not only in my heart, but physically.  I got a necklace bearing Tolkien’s words for Christmas (Pictured below).

It’s a dangerous, wonderful, messy, beautiful world.  As I go, I need to keep my feet, always remembering who I am and where I came from, lest I lose my way.

Sadly, I can’t promise frequent blog posts from this point onward.  Once I reach L’Abri, I’ll be relatively off the grid.  But, hopefully, I’ll be able to find ways to post every once and a while.

So, dear readers, wish me luck.  The time has come to step onto the road and begin my journey…

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100+ Books in Less than a Year

Back in high school, I got an account on Goodreads and started keeping track of the things I was reading.  Curious about how many books I read each year, I began organizing my collection into shelves.

In 2011, I read 75 books.  In 2012, the count went up to 87.  Things shifted when I went to college–only 55 and 57 reads in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

This year, though, is the highest total yet.

Some people set reading goals.  I don’t.  I just read.  I read and read and read and read and… well… can’t really stop.

As of right now, I’ve read 104 books in the past twelve months.  This includes audiobooks, assigned reading, and Kindle e-books.  It does NOT include books I’ve read twice–because, yes, I managed to listen through Harry Potter twice in the past six months.

Originally, I planned on making a big list of all 104 titles.  But then I realized that the amount of YA chick-lit I’ve been consuming lately is borderline embarrassing.  You really don’t need to know how fast I can read Stephanie Perkins and Kierra Cass novels.  (In case you were dying of curiosity, it’s less than 24 hours per book)

Instead, I’m going to list the best books.  The books that reached into my heart and found a home; the ones that made me feel; the stories that, months later, still have me thinking.

Here we go…

  • Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

  • His Grave Assassins trilogy by Robin LaFevers

  • Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

  • Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen

  • The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

  • The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

  • Paper Towns by John Green

  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare

  • The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

  • Who is This Man? by John Ortberg

  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

  • Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickins

  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

  • Symphony of Ages trilogy by Elizabeth Haydon

  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I recommend anything on this list.

However, if I could get you to read any of these books, I’d point you to The Danish Girl.  It’s been getting attention lately due to the recent biopic starring Eddie Redmayne.  I haven’t seen the film yet, but the book is incredible.  I used it to write my senior seminar paper this spring and fell in love with it.  It helped me better understand the transgender experience–a perspective on which I’ve been woefully ignorant my entire life.  The novel is about courage, love, and an exploration of self-creation.

I also highly recommend The Silmarillion by Tolkien, which was insanely hard to get through, but SO worth it.  It gives Middle Earth so much more depth and meaning.

For non-fiction, I LOVED Who is This Man? by John Ortberg.  The book is a collection of essays examining the figure of Jesus from multiple perspectives.  It looks at the impact Jesus had on different areas like science, history, forgiveness, the treatment of women, etc.  I got a lot out of this book and loved thinking about Jesus on an intellectual front, rather than a spiritual one.

My to-read list is endless, but I’m always open for recommendations for things to read in 2016!  What are some of the best books you’ve read in the past year?  Tell me about them in the comments!

On the Shelf: Summer Reading Updates & Mini Reviews

I’ve decided to switch up my On the Shelf this week.  Instead of one big review, I’ve done some mini-reviews, followed by some chit chat about other books I’ve been reading.  (Also, apologies for being a day late on this post…)

The Heir by Kiera Cass

Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars

A few weeks ago, I finally picked up the fourth book in Cass’s The Selection series.  The thing about Cass is that she isn’t a breathtaking writer–her post-apocalyptic America is relatively boring and her characters lack depth–but I somehow still love her books.  They’re like a mashup of The Hunger Games, The Bachelor, and all my favorite fairy tales.

Taking place after the trilogy ends, the book centers around Eadlyn, the first female heir to the throne.  Although the caste system has been dissolved, the country’s problems aren’t over.  Citizens are increasingly unhappy and are beginning to turn on the royal family.  In attempt to lift morale, another Selection begins and male suitors begin pouring into the palace from all over the country, determined to win Eadlyn’s hand.

For the most part, Eadlyn isn’t very likable.  She’s stubborn, proud, and stuck-up.  She’s pretty high and mighty, but her many flaws are partially forgivable because of the amount she gives up for her throne.  The book makes clear that, given the choice, she wouldn’t choose to rule the country.  But she throws herself into it anyways and, throughout the book, sacrifices her personal desires for her position.  That doesn’t wholly redeem her, though.  She still is annoying at points.

What I love about this book is that it takes us on the other side of the Selection.  In the first three books, we see it all from the point of view of one of the participants.  In this story, we get to see the process from the heir’s point of view.  What would it be like to balance dating 30 young men and learning to rule an unstable country?

The other thing I love is that it brings out a lot of double-standards.  Being a feminist, I LOVE seeing double-standards exposed.  Before this, it was always a male heir surrounded by female suitors.  Boys, though, respond differently to the competition.  While girls got into spats, boys brawl.  With a female heir, sexual assault becomes an issue.  While it’s okay for male heirs to get physical with the candidates, a female one is looked down upon as loose.  While the press was all about praising Maxon in the first series, it seems out to get Eadlyn–painting her as a prideful, spoiled, ice queen.

Is The Heir the best piece of literature out there?  Nope.  Is it enjoyable?  Definitely.

The Kingkiller Chronicles: The Name of the Wind & The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Rating: 2 / 5 stars

Summary: Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature.

I picked up this unfinished series at the high recommendation of a book lover friend.  It’s been a while since I picked up a massive fantasy novel and thought I’d give the highly-acclaimed series a try.  What I can say is that Rothfuss is a very gifted writer.  His prose is truly excellent.

What I can’t say is that I enjoyed these books.  Although they’re entertaining/easy reads, I didn’t feel myself loving these books.  The way they’re set up bothers me.  The premise is that there’s one story taking place present-time regarding a civil war with mysterious monsters on the loose.  The main character, Kvote, is the stuff of legend, but has taken cover as an innkeeper and thought dead.  When discovered by a recorder of stories, Kvote decides to tell his.  The majority of the books follow the course of his life–tracing his childhood in a troupe of traveling musicians to years living as a street urchin to living as a student at the university.  In the second book, Kvote continues his studies, helps a king woo a wife, tracks down bandits in the woods, winds up in the fairy world and shacks up with a fae temptress, and spends time with an off-the-map society where he learns to fight.  All the while, Kvote looks for information on the Chandrian–a group of killers out of legends who killed his parents.

The story, ‘though intriguing, feels like it’s going nowhere.  Kvote isn’t very likable.  He goes from adventure to adventure and is amazing at everything he does.  He’s an amazing musician, student, lover, fighter, and magician.  There’s nothing he can’t do…  And he’s a smart-ass.

Then there’s his love interest, Denna.  Ugh.  She’s one of the worst female characters I’ve ever encountered.  I’d go into how awful she is, but a Goodreads reviewer has said it better than I ever could.

If you’re into fantasy, you might like these books.  If not, skip them.

Other Books I’m Reading…

I’m still plugging through The Silmarillion by Tolkien.  It’s breathtaking, but extremely thick.  I can only manage thirty pages a week.  This afternoon, I finally breached the 200 page mark.  It’s slow going, but I’ll have it finished by the time summer ends!

At work, I’m listening through Harry Potter again.  This week, I reached Order of the Phoenix… so my hours are filled with lots of angst.  I plowed through Goblet of Fire last week and, in the wake of Voldemort’s return, I’m once again annoyed by how unpleasant Harry is in this book.  But it’s okay.  It just makes me thankful I’m out of the teen years.

Recently, I picked up Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier.  Yes, more fantasy.  It’s the first of Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  I’ve read the whole series already, but it’s been a few years.  The first is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Wild Swans”.  I love a good fairytale retelling and am looking forward to this read.

That’s it for this week’s On the Shelf.  What books have you been reading lately?

Sketchbook Corner (Watercolor Edition)

Or shall I say… Watercolor Corner?

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year was a set of new watercolors from my little brother.  For the past few months, I’ve been scraping by on an eight-tint Crayola set that is five years old.  Yuck.  The new set has a massive array of colors and when I combine it with the big set of brushes I got for my birthday, I’m capable of achieving so much more with my paint.

I’ve been exploring some different techniques/subjects, which has been a blast.  Since this is a watercolor-only edition of SK and I’ve put a lot of thought and time into all these works, let’s take things one by one…

(Please excuse the crappy image quality)

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These mountains were the first thing I painted upon receiving my new paint.  I gave this one to my best friend as a belated Christmas gift.

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I had a blast painting this sunflower on Christmas day.  I gave it to my summer partner, Eva, (who loves yellow).

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This is my amateur attempt at capturing The Lonely Mountain from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It took forever to paint–so many layers!  I rewatched one of the films while I painted, staying up WAY too late to finish.  But, gosh, am I pleased with the result!  I loved it so much I sent it home with my older brother, who shares my love of Tolkien.

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Okay, so the picture quality is REALLY crappy here.  It looks much better in person.  This was my first real attempt at painting people since getting the new brushes and paint.  I originally started out doing lots of people (see previous Sketchbook Corners for examples), but it was difficult with only one brush to work with.  I started this one on a whim–the basic sketch took only a couple minute.  I finished her up at a sleepover, which was actually pretty challenging as I had to balance the paints on my friend’s couch while avoiding her over-excited pomeranians.

Did this one last night as well.  I wanted to experiment more with painting people, and I'm quite pleased with the result!  I've been reading several YA fairytale retellings, so I imagine she's either Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or has a story of her own.

I painted this last night while watching the premiere of Marvel’s Agent Carter with my mother. I wanted to experiment more with painting people, and I’m quite pleased with the result! I’ve been reading several YA fairytale retellings, so I imagine she’s either Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or has a story of her own.

Finally…

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This took FOREVER.  I did the background and sketches of the trees before New Years and didn’t pick it back up until last night.  The details on the trees took what felt like hours.  And yes… it’s inspired by a Taylor Swift song.  (My favorite on her 1989 album).  Painting all the black got annoying and adding words with white felt like a risk, but I’m definitely pleased with the result!

That’s all for this edition of Sketchbook Corner!  Check by in a few weeks to see what else my hands come up with.  If you haven’t seen them, do look at my previous SK posts and see how I’ve improved!

Also, because I’m curious… What painting is your favorite?  Let me know in the comments!

The Battle of Five Armies

This weekend, I visited Middle Earth via the silver screen for the last time.  To say I’m a Tolkien fan is an obvious fact.  I mean, I DID name my blog from one of his lines.

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

I remember my first exposure to The Hobbit.  I was six or seven years old and we rented the old 1970’s cartoon.  It was creepy, kind of terrifying, but my brothers and I enjoyed it enough to delve further into Tolkien’s world.

In fifth grade, I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time.  The movies were coming out around this time and I followed them religiously.  Despite differences from the books, I adore the film versions.  I have them memorized.  I listen to the original trilogy on audiobook every summer.

The main difference between the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fanchises is that the original trilogy came out when I was still in my formative years.  I was an excited child, ready to eat up anything Peter Jackson dished out.  As I grew older and learned to see the books and movies as different entities, I continued to love them out of childhood nostalgia.  The Hobbit, however, is different.

The first time I ever read The Hobbit was at the age of ten.  I was in fourth grade.  Mr. Achartz, my teacher, read it aloud to us.  I had a copy and followed along.  I fell absolutely in love.  Ever since, I’ve been reading and rereading the children’s story to the point where I don’t even need the words for the story to appear in my mind.

My main issue with The Hobbit movies is that I’m WAY too intimate with the source material.  Not only did I grow up on the story, but it’s something I’ve put a great deal of academic thought into.  Last fall during my term abroad, I wrote a ten page final essay on the uncanniness of Mirkwood that not only scored the best grade possible, but took first prize in the annual essay contest in my university at home.  The novel’s themes, centering around the idea of home, fascinate me and hold my heart.

It’s been incredibly painful, to be honest, watching the world eat up the film versions.  I enjoyed the first one well enough, but was absolutely devastated by the second.  Peter Jackson mutilated my beloved story.  The characters come and go to and from all the right places, but the events that transpire are totally different.  I was heartbroken by this.

Going into the final version, to say I had expectations would be a lie.  I didn’t even watch any of the trailers, to be honest.  I knew that the film would never match my idealistic childhood imaginings.  So I didn’t expect it to.  I went into The Battle of Five Armies with a mindset of detachment–these weren’t my beloved characters.  This isn’t my beloved story.  It’s an adaptation, a version that is not my own.

Having this mindset helped a LOT.  I actually really enjoyed the movie.  The pacing, of course, was really weird.  One of the finest moments of the novel is when Bard slays Smaug, which happens in the first ten minutes.  Most of the movie is focused on the battle and resolving Thorin’s issues with pride and, as the movie calls it, “dragon-sickness”.

There were things I really enjoyed.

Smaug, for one, is absolute and total perfection. It’s a shame his role is cut so short. Benedict Cumberbatch is incredible.

Once I pushed aside the weirdness of the Tauriel/Kili thing, I was able to actually cheer for the cross-species couple.  (Although I’m still miffed that they actually created a freaking awesome female elf and the stupid studio only allowed her existence if she was part of a love triangle.  WOMEN DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO BE IN LOVE IN MOVIES.  Rant over.)

I also really enjoy Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo, especially his weird little twitches.  It’s been fun seeing Bilbo grow and evolve as a character, finding his courage and facing down deadly foes.  But, through those little movements, Freeman conveys that deep down, Bilbo is not at home.  He isn’t comfortable.  He belongs in the Shire, in his armchair with a cozy breakfast and a large stock of pipeweed.

I also am head-over-heels in love with Lee Pace’s Thranduil.  He’s one of the most arrogant, (insert many profanities here) characters I’ve ever encountered.  And I love it.  Oh my goodness.  The internet has done some beautiful things with this character.

Because GingerHaze’s Party King Thranduil comics are the best.

I also pretty much adored Legolas throughout the entire film.  But that’s mainly because I don’t take Orlando Bloom seriously.  Every time he does something, I turned and obnoxiously whispered to my older brother, “Legolas does what he wants!”  He never listens to his father, never follows orders.  Out of nowhere, he opens up to Tauriel about not knowing his mother.  And at the end, he dramatically announces to his father that he isn’t returning to Mirkwood.  To which Thranduil goes, “Okay cool, just so you know, your mother did love you.”  At this point, I whispered to Joe (my brother), “So all this time, Legolas just had serious mommy issues.”  And he goes, “And now he’s going on the Middle Earth equivalent of a three-month backpacking trip in Europe to find himself.”  It’s fun not taking Legolas seriously.  (Because even in the original movie trilogy, all he does is point out the obvious.)

There is certainly a great deal more to say and there are a lot of things I could complain about, but I’m trying to be better at not being a total elitist English major snob.  So as far as movies go, it is an entertaining and enjoyable one. I will leave it at that and go read the book.

What are your thoughts/opinions on the movies? Love them? Hate them? Tell me about it in the comments!

Anniversaries and adventures

Yesterday marked the anniversary of my departure for London, England.

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I can’t believe it’s been a year already.  It feels like yesterday that I stepped on that airplane.

The thing about adventures is that they change people.  It happens in books all the time.  In The Hobbit, Bilbo returned to the Shire a very different person who left.  No matter what he did, or how much time passed, he could not go back to the simple life he had before.

My adventure changed me.  I became aware of how much I can accomplish; confident in my ability to follow through; and incredibly independent.  I learned to see the world beyond my limited American perspective.  I learned to be globally minded, and gained a deep appreciation for people and cultures apart from my own.  I got to see amazing things–the Alps, Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower, the Cliffs of Moher, the Scottish Highlands, to name a few.  I met wonderful friends that are still dear to my heart, people who understand parts of me that no one else can.  I experienced how dark this world is, but also gained appreciation for the light that does exist.

Like Bilbo, I returned home a different person.  And adjusting back into normal life was a challenge.  People who had been dear friends no longer knew how to relate to me, and I to them.  I tried, for a while, to make up for ground that I had lost while away, but eventually gave up.  Connections were lost, and I decided to move on.

Being an English major, my three and a half months abroad changed the way I read.  In my Victorian Literature class, not a day passes when my experiences fail to enhance my experience.  Just today, someone put a map of the city up while discussing a historical detail and my heart gave a tinge because I know those streets.

The other thing about adventure is that once you have a taste, it never lets go.  You’re hooked for life.  Already, I feel the desire to see lands unknown rising up in me.  I long for city streets to explore, train rides through countries that are new, and conversations with people from far away places.

Thank goodness I’ve only got one year of school left.  Because adventure is out there, and I am going to chase it.  Who knows where I’ll be a year from now?

Friday Favorites III

My computer monitor informs me that I have twenty one minutes till midnight… so time for a last-minute Friday Favorites!

This food:

That’s right… almonds.  This one is a bit weird for me.  I’ve never liked eating nuts.  Never.  But one of my coworkers at camp shared a bunch and, after giving them a shot, I discovered that they are, in fact, delicious.  My dad will be so proud.

This book:

 

 

I ordered this book on Amazon AGES ago and have been longing for its release ever since.  When I returned home from camp today, I was overjoyed to find my newly released copy sitting on my bed.  I don’t even have words for how excited this book makes me.  I mean, it’s two of my favorite things combined!  Tolkien and Arthurian legend!  How much more epic can you get?  Yes, the poem itself is unfinished (can you blame the man for wanting to finish writing The Hobbit?).  Yes, most of the book is made up of essays.  But it’s Tolkien.  And it’s Arthurian legend.  And it’s going to be beautiful.

Graduation

This evening, I got to see my little brother graduate  high school.  He’s a great kid, and I’m excited to see where life brings him next!  It was strange being in that building again–I haven’t stepped foot inside in around three years.  After the ceremony, I got to see several friends that I haven’t seen or spoken to in several years (some since my own graduation, actually).  I also saw a few former classmates that made me want to run and hide.  Nevertheless, I’ve always been one for nostalgia, so when the opening bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” began, I momentarily forgot about how uncomfortable it was to be packed in the high school gym like sardines.  Part of my heart stirred, longing for times gone by–of lockers, band class, and hanging out with friends between bells.  And then some students behind me talked the entire ceremony, reminding me exactly why I was so happy to leave high school behind.  After everything was over

This place:

This is the St. Croix River at the Osceola boat landing, about five minutes from my house.  This photo was taken a few years ago, but my best friend and I have a tradition of coming here in the summer.  After graduation, we went to Dairy Queen and brought our ice cream to the park on the island in the middle of the beautiful river.  The sun had already set, and as we sat at the point watching the water flow away from us, we talked about life, school, God, and all sorts of best friend topics.  It’s been a few months since we’ve seen each other, and due to the fact that I’m at camp and Erin is headed for Africa next week, our paths won’t cross much this summer.  Talking to her was wonderful, and even though it was dark, the St. Croix was as beautiful as ever.

This song:

Just before the semester ended, Cloud Cult came to my university.  Even though it was cold and a bit wet, I curled up under a blanket with one of my roommates eating day old movie theater popcorn as they played a two hour acoustic set on the mall in the center of campus.  Ever since, I’ve been absolutely obsessed with their new acoustic album.  I listened to this song at least three consequtive times on my drive from camp to home this afternoon.

In Transit

I admit, this is not my first blog.  I’ve been blogging since the tender age of fifteen.  I am now twenty-one.

The thing about being a college student is that your life is never stable.  You’re in this weird in-between place where you’re not a kid anymore, but you’re not fully an adult.  You live in this weird scholarly bubble that includes essay writing, attending lectures, eating pasta constantly for dinner, and increasing stress as finals loom closer.  You can see the outside world, but it’s shrouded by the weird haze of “someday”.

Nothing stays the same.  You go back to your hometown over school breaks and the businesses on main street are different.  At home, your parents suddenly start making plans to convert your bedroom, that safe place and heart of your childhood, into a sewing room, home office, or guest room.  People you have known for years suddenly start getting married and having babies–often not in that order.  The ties that once held you to home begin to stretch and fade, leaving you suspended in “where do I go from here?” land.

Right now, my life is definitely in transit.  I just returned home to the United States from a semester studying abroad in London.  Living in a foreign country for three and a half months is a wonderful, but strange experience.  Although you try your hardest to stay in touch with people back home, life gets in the way.  So you build a new life where you’re at.  But then, just like that, the semester is over and you go back to your old life.  But, like with home, your ties have faded.  You know they’ll soon be reestablished, but until that happens, you’re stuck in this weird place where you’re not quite sure where you fit.

That’s why I’ve started this blog.  After spending three and a half months on my travel blog (which I put lots of effort into and you should all go read), I had planned on returning to my normal space, the place I’ve been writing since I was fifteen.  But I soon realized that wasn’t going to work.  I’m not fifteen anymore.  My original intentions for blogging are different from what they used to be.  I need to start fresh.

The title from this blog comes from one of my favorite quotes:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

Metaphorically, Tolkien hits the nail on the head.  Growing up is stepping into the world.  You leave home, go to college, live abroad, get a job, etc.  The world is a big, sometimes scary place, filled with dangers.  If you don’t watch your step, it can easily sweep you away.    You have to know yourself, know your mission, and you have to stick to it.  You have to hold tightly to who you are.  You have to keep your feet.

But, despite its dangers, the world is also an incredibly beautiful place, filled with wonders to explore and learn.  If you keep your feet firmly on the path and your eyes set on the horizon, you’re in for the adventure of a lifetime.

So, feel free to join me on my journey into adulthood.  I can’t promise what this blog will bring, just as I don’t know what lies in store.  But, I suppose, that’s part of the adventure.  Let’s step onto the road and begin…